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[Kitchen Talk]
Savoring history in Iraqi cuisine

With roots going back to Mesopotamia, so much rich history has to rub off somehow

Mar 17,2009
Mustafa M. Taufik
Without visiting a country, the only thing you know about it is often limited to what the Encyclopedia Britannica tells you or what people who have been there say about it. And then there is food. If your taste buds get something they like, a connection is made in an instant.

One thing I have learned while roaming around from one embassy to another, tasting different cuisines, is that I generally feel like I have basically no clue about the country whose embassy I’m visiting, even with all of my self-taught knowledge. But when I get that first bite, it’s like I’ve suddenly been sent off in a time machine. Flashes of ancient history and the civilizations that have helped lay the groundwork for the food in my mouth rush through my mind.

When I visited Mustafa M. Taufik, the minister plenipotentiary and the head of the Iraqi mission to Seoul, he gave me a preview of what was to come.

“Brian, Iraqi cuisine is a mixture of Turkish and Persian cuisine,” he said.

“Iraqi cuisine is a mixture of Turkish and Persian cuisine,” says Minister Taufik. From left: Dolma stuffed with meat and vegetables, kleicha filled with nuts and sugar and crispy kubba filled with meat and egg. By Jeong Chi-ho
My first bite of Iraqi cuisine was kubba. Ah, how shall I describe it? The closest thing I can think of is fried dumplings. A crispy, thin shell surrounds a pocket of meat and eggs in a neat little package the size of your palm. They’re perfect as appetizers, or good as a main dish.

The next dish introduced by Minister Taufik was dolma, which is basically a family of stuffed vegetable dishes. He told me his wife had spent two days preparing the dish as just the right temperature is needed to make it work, earnest efforts that were reflected in the cooking. Dolma is a dish in which zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and cabbages are filled with rice, and the stuffing mix may or may not include meat. It’s just like our own gimbap, but the ingredients used for the wrapping are different and give it more variety.

What I found most delicious was the pastry we had. One plate was filled with kleicha, half moons filled with nuts and sugar. There was also something special that came directly from Iraq. The minister was kind enough to offer Almann Walsalwa, which is described in the Koran. You can think of it as a kind of caramel that’s been sprinkled with white powder, but it has a sweeter taste and its shape is somewhat less defined. Extremely addictive, I must say.

I am essentially a meat lover, and that includes lamb as well. But one bit of information that the minister gave was disheartening. In the Middle East, lamb and mutton is the meat of choice.

What I didn’t know was that in Iraq, it is strictly for domestic consumption only. “Iraqi lamb meat is the best in the world. Neighboring countries have offered high prices, but this we will keep inside Iraq,” said the minister. “The land, the grass and the water, it all comes together to make our mutton the best quality meat.”

How can that be?! The best lamb and mutton in the world and it’s not legally possible to have it?! This is not fair! Now I know exactly what our Foreign Ministry needs to do.

Regarding the local cuisine, Minister Taufik names bibimbap and galbi as his favorites. He is a very health-conscious person, so he recognizes the good stuff when he sees it. The minister asserts that he has had no problem adjusting to the local tastes. “I have yet to taste Korean food that is very hot or spicy, including kimchi. This may be because I like and used to eat very spicy food.”

Before any embassy visit, I first send off a questionnaire to lay a foundation for the meeting. The very first question I ask is this: What was the most shocking cultural experience, if any, since your arrival? Ambassadors, having a natural ability to put a positive spin on anything, especially when it comes to the host country, usually avoid this question like the plague. Surprisingly, though, Minister Taufik was candid.

“I have noticed most Koreans have a lack of understanding and information about the Arab and Islamic culture. This is especially true of young people, who are impressed with Western culture and completely stuck on it,” the minister said. “We have the Korea-Arab Society. Although it is still new, there are plans to set up programs aimed at cultural dialogue to reduce the gap between our societies. These include fairs and festivals and other activities.”

Beyond the usual layer of news surrounding Iraq, there is the culture. And that includes the cuisine.

Iraq traces its roots to ancient Mesopotamia, the place between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that is known as the cradle of civilization. And so much rich history has to rub off somewhere.


By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [africanu@joongang.co.kr]





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